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SAN RAMON, Calif. -- Sandwiched between a chiropractor and a dentist just off a freeway exit, Castus Low Carb Superstore admittedly has a name that's far bigger than its floor plan.
But to the low-carbohydrate faithful, this modest deli-size shop is as magnificent as St. Peter's Basilica.
''This place is my salvation. I drove two hours to shop here, and I'll certainly be back,'' says Carolyn Paras-Hutchinson, whose husband has lowered his weight and cholesterol since she started cooking low-carb meals.
Hovering by a shelf of low-carb treats is Chris Burns, a self-described dark-chocolate ''fiend'' who used to stuff his freezer with ice cream. In two weeks, he has lost 8 pounds. ''I have more energy than ever,'' he says. ''I'm on the road to being fit.''
Move over, Chris. The low-carb on-ramp is getting jammed. From megacities to small burgs, Americans in huge numbers -- 15 million to 30 million, industry watchers say -- are tossing medical caveats aside and shedding weight on low-carb, high-protein diets that were once considered weird science.
Evidence includes the nation's 200-and-growing low-carb specialty shops, quasi-shrines to the late protein-diet guru Robert Atkins where the cash registers rarely stop singing. Not wanting to lose their piece of the nation's $30 billion annual dieting pie, mainstream food giants have responded by introducing low-carb lines.
Low-carb Web sites are proliferating (''Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,'' trumpets the home page lowcarb4life.sugarbane.com). So are cookbooks (The Low-Carb Comfort Food Cookbook is one of 18 now selling on Amazon). An Atkins spinoff is booming: The South Beach Diet, written by Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston, touts more leeway with carbs and has sold 1 million copies. (Bill and Hillary Clinton reportedly are big fans.)
''This is an industry in its infancy,'' says Paul Chalupsky, who runs Castus -- Latin for ''pure'' -- with friend Rick Schott. With two locations in the eastern suburbs of San Francisco, Castus will do$4 million in sales this year and just began franchise operations.
''I know this works,'' says Castus CEO Schott, who lost 100 pounds on Atkins. ''But we had no clue how quickly this idea would turn into a success. People want it.''
People such as Cathy Rhoda of Memphis, who started on the diet a month ago along with five work colleagues and now makes shopping runs for the group. She used to drive an hour to a Mississippi health food store, but she has since found heaven in a new store, Mimi & Papa's Low Carb Center in nearby Bartlett, Tenn.
Not only have her sacrifices been few (''I had to switch to low-carb chips -- no big deal''), but she's allowed cheese, steak and a Southern staple most diets would ban. ''I can still fry chicken. I just have to dip it in crushed pork skins,'' says Rhoda, who has lost 15 pounds. ''It's the first diet I've stuck with.''
Though the so-called ''low-carb lifestyle'' has been around since 1972's Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution: The High Calorie Way to Stay Thin Forever, this newfound acceptance hasn't come easy.
Harvard report revived diet
Once a maligned diet -- when Atkins' book came out, the American Medical Association immediately labeled his approach ''potentially dangerous,'' and Congress summoned him to defend his science -- low-carbers attribute its current explosion partly to May articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and Harvard Health Letter.
The articles acknowledged Atkins' method did reduce weight quickly and often improved followers' cholesterol levels. Titled ''Is the Atkins diet on to something?'' the Harvard report in particular seemed to give anyone sitting on the Atkins fence the OK to dive in.
''Atkins continues to be vindicated,'' says Andrew DiMino, who cut out his ''beloved pasta'' on Atkins, lost 50 pounds, and went on to start Low Carb Lifestyle Distributors in Sparks, Nev. ''Orders are coming in from anywhere and everywhere.''
Mainstream players are starting to take notice. Safeway plans to expand low-carb offerings throughout its 1,700 U.S. and Canadian stores. Not a bad idea considering the trend even is supermarket tab fare: A recent ''Addicted to carbs?'' cover story in Woman's World touts a ''miracle pill'' that blocks calories from carbs.
''It's the buzz,'' says Paul Callaro, a vice president at the shopping channel QVC, which recently dedicated airtime to low-carb products. Four of six sold out and generated a ''well above average'' 10,000-plus calls in 54 minutes.
Though many low-carb foods are made by niche players, some well-known manufacturers are getting into the game. Michelob offers low-carb Ultra beer, and Russell Stover, the nation's third-largest seller of boxed chocolates, soon will introduce a line of low-carb treats. Thomas Ward, Stover's president, has described himself as a ''low-carb person'' who dropped 25 pounds on the diet.
Some restaurants are starting to cater to the low-carb set. At exclusive L'Espalier in Boston, the wait staff has been trained in the intricacies of Atkins. ''They need to know that, yes, a tomato does have carbs,'' says spokeswoman Regina Hanley, who adds that diners increasingly call ahead to customize their carb-free meals. ''It used to be stragglers; now it's six or more people a week.''
Two eateries in Columbia, S.C., have gone one step further: They label each menu item with calorie and carb counts. ''We had people coming in asking for pork rinds in their sandwiches and burgers with no bread, so we figured we'd better start meeting their needs,'' says Mike Creech, who owns Sarah's Deli & Catering and Tony's Pizza & Pub, where a crustless slice rings in at 1.9 carbs. ''All I hear these days is 'no-carb this' and 'low-carb that.' It's snowballing.''
The trend makes Richard Simmons, who sells his own weight-loss products, wince.
''I've seen every diet come and go over the decades -- all fruit, all veggies, all protein, whatever. America is so confused it just doesn't know what to do,'' he says. ''In the end, all of these programs are unbalanced and therefore aren't sustainable for the long run.''
Simmons says he is particularly bothered that low-carb diets don't stress exercise.
''What, are they allergic to sweat?'' he says. ''I know people like to lose weight quickly, and a low-carb diet will deliver that. But it's not healthy, and ultimately I think (rapid weight loss) leads to depression.''
John Ries couldn't be more upbeat. The retired pediatrician from Eugene, Ore., was looking for a way he and his wife could lose weight. Reluctant to embrace the low-carb approach (''I was mainline all the way, very conservative,'' he says), he decided to read Atkins' book.
''You could say we just used ourselves as lab experiments. I've lost 23 pounds and my wife, 36. We're happy and not hungry,'' says Ries, who is so convinced they're not alone that he's opening two Castus franchises in Eugene. ''I no longer think this is so radical.''
Even so, some medical professionals warn that the diet's popularity shouldn't be confused with scientific invulnerability: One medical study found that the Atkins diet may increase the risk of kidney stones and bone loss.
Theory behind low carb
Low-carb dieting involves, in oversimplified terms, trading pasta for steak, carbs for protein. Nutritionists caution that eliminating carb-heavy products, which include grains and many fruits, threatens to lower the body's supply of life-sustaining nutrients.
A carb-free body searches elsewhere for energy. First, blood sugar reserves in the liver are reduced, followed by those in the muscles. Weight is lost in the form of water and eventually fat.
Skeptics remain. ''All foods can fit into a healthful lifestyle, and we're concerned about putting a negative stigma'' on carbohydrates, says Cindy Moore, a Cleveland-based nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. ''If you go to these low-carb stores, you might want to consider shopping elsewhere, too.''
That advice aside, two alarming medical trends appear to validate the merits of low-carb foods.
An estimated 65% of American adults are overweight or obese, a figure that probably will rise because of poor diets and lack of activity, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. That percentage helps explain escalating cases of diabetes: 17 million Americans diagnosed and 16 million more considered pre-diabetic.
Of perhaps even greater concern is the growing number of obese children in the USA, a doubling since 1980. There is now a troubling appearance of type 2 diabetes (when the body doesn't produce enough insulin or can't make use of the insulin it produces) in children. Type 2 usually strikes adults after 40.
Enter the low-carb diet, which is known to quickly reduce weight and keep blood sugar stable.
(Eugene Barrett, a University of Virginia physician and spokesman for the American Diabetes Association, says there is ''no data'' on the relationship between low-carb diets and diabetes. He says ''your best bet if you think you're at risk is go to a nutritionist.'')
Atkins was studying the connection. Diabetes Revolution, a book he started before his death in April, is due in mid-2004 from Atkins Nutritionals, which also distributes a half-dozen lines of low-carb foods. Sales of everything from Atkins snack bars to protein drinks have doubled in the past year.
Though the seemingly easy money being made in low-carb sales certainly motivates, most shop owners are driven by an almost evangelical belief in the diet. Rare is the low-carb entrepreneur who hasn't lost dozens of pounds.
''I had a friend on Atkins, and I thought she was crazy. But she wore me down,'' says Linda Langdon of Vancouver, Ore., just outside of Portland, a low-carb hotbed with 18 stores to date.
After losing 100 pounds on Atkins, Langdon started Low Carb Habit with her friend Jill Maurice. That was two years ago. Today, lines often snake around the block and into an alley. The pair also make nationally distributed low-carb cookies and desserts.
'Word of mouth'
''It's all been word of mouth, really,'' Langdon says. ''Someone will drop in one day, and the next day their whole office comes by. We've already decided to open a low-carb restaurant.''
Over at Castus Low Carb Superstore, men, women and children of all shapes start lining up at the cash register, baskets full of goodies such as Flax 'N Nut Crunchies granola and decadent Judy's Peanut Brittle. No one has loaded up on Cinnamon Pork Rinds, but that's only because the popular item sold out earlier that morning.
Schott, 50, is an Ironman-fit chatterbox. The low-carb lifestyle certainly has given him reason to be chipper. Schott's overweight past hangs near the checkout, a poster-size, shirtless photo of him at 265 pounds.
His slim, successful present also is on display: There in the parking lot, gleaming in the sun, is his new Porsche 911 Turbo with the license plate LOW CARB.
''Hey, we've done low-fat for 30 years, right? Well, clearly that's failed,'' says Schott, who envisions 5,000 Castus franchises within five years. ''Now it's time to spread the low-carb message.''Cover storyCover story
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